During my first week in parliament I asked a question of the minister for energy: would Labor fulfil its 2010 promise to replace Hazelwood coal power station with clean energy? Before the minister had a chance to rise to her feet, cries rang out in the chamber: ‘Teach her a lesson!’ ‘Yeah, give it to her!’
I had expected the minister might dodge the question, but I hadn’t expected just how vitriolic and aggressive her colleagues would be. Later, a minister told me I’d soon ‘get used to it’, but I couldn’t help thinking: Is it any wonder young people don’t want to go into politics?
A 2010 Lowy institute poll showed that less than 50 per cent of young people believe democracy is preferable to any other form of government. That’s scary, because the alternatives to democracy are rule by force or rule by money, and both are terrible options. But what these polls really indicate is not disillusionment with democracy, rather disillusionment with politics as it stands.
Young people are embracing democracy more and more in their everyday lives. Rather than being passive consumers, young people are the creators of open-source software and crowd-sourced media. This group of young people is regularly demonised in the mainstream press for its upstart nature in the workplace—demanding autonomy and more involvement in decision-making. This generation created GetUp!, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition and a host of other campaign organisations. They are extremely engaged in society, and believe every person has a right to participate meaningfully in decisions that affect them, but they are less likely to participate in traditional political parties and less likely to register to vote.
A rejection of politics should not be mistaken as a rejection of democracy. Young people want to be meaningfully involved in the world, but badly behaving politicians who take their roles for granted, the corrupting influence of big business and a voting system that isn’t always fair leave young people asking why they’d get involved in a system in which their voices are largely ignored.
People are opting out because no matter which major party is in power, corporations tend to have more relevance to our lives than governments do, and therefore our vote doesn’t seem to make much difference. This goes beyond the obvious direct influence of corporate money on our political system, such as political donations from property developers, which are still allowed in Victoria and have been exposed as corrupting politicians from both sides in New South Wales.
Corporate influence goes much deeper than just brown paper bags of money slipped under the table. Both old parties have long subscribed to the view that the free market will solve our social ills and have therefore, seemingly innocently, given control over much of our society to big business. We’ve been told that the free market is the pathway to choice, growth and prosperity, but blind allegiance to this system has meant governments have given up much of their decisionmaking power for short-term profit, often at the expense of long-term benefits for society and democracy.
Proper road and public-transport planning is increasingly pushed aside in favour of selling public space to toll-road companies, which generally delivers a worse economic outcome for taxpayers over the long term but looks good on a government’s short-term balance sheet. Free-trade agreements mean our governments have little control over the price of many goods. Electricity privatisation has created powerful lobby groups against action on climate change, and made it difficult for governments to shut down our dirtiest coal-fired power stations, such as Hazelwood.
Governments now must hurriedly and expensively patch up holes in a system they could have regulated properly in the first place. They’re using our money to bail out the banks after the GFC, throwing taxpayer money at the car manufacturing industry knowing they probably can’t stop it going offshore, propping up food suppliers, and giving out first-home-buyer grants in a frantic attempt to convince us they have some control over house prices.
Yet by continuing to sell off public assets and refusing to get in the way of business, governments are sending a message to voters that they cannot, or will not, intervene on our behalf to deal with the big issues that affect us such as climate change, housing affordability and food prices.
Is it any wonder, then, that this has led to a culture where people don’t listen to governments, because they believe no matter who wins an election, corporations will largely continue with business as usual?
It’s a problem of the government’s own making. Had Labor and Coalition governments been more willing to intervene to correct market failures and regulate corporations in the long-term interest, rather than getting blinded by the thought of short-term profits that make their budgets look good before an election, people might trust they have some power over the big issues, and might take more notice.
Fortunately, it’s not time to start grabbing pitchforks and hitting the streets just yet. There are many reforms we could make to bring young people back into the national discussion and reinvigorate democracy.
Three solutions, long championed by the Greens, are: updating our political donations laws, keeping public assets in public hands and introducing proportional representation. It is a formidable challenge, because these are the very things that entrench the advantage of those already in power, but it is a fight we need to have.
One of the most common complaints I hear from voters is: ‘I live in a safe seat, so my vote doesn’t count.’ Our system of single-member electorates means a handful of voters in marginal seats have a disproportionate influence on the outcome of elections, because the power of your vote depends on where you live.
This leads to pork-barrelling, where political parties are prompted to throw money at a small number of voters in marginal seats, regardless of whether those areas really need a new school or football oval. Safe seats consistently miss out. Instead, we need a system where each vote counts the same, no matter where you live, and public investment is based on need.
Our voting method also entrenches the two-party system, and leads to the situation we have in Victoria, where in 2014 the Greens won 11.48 per cent of the vote but this translated into only two seats in the lower house, whereas the Nationals won 5.53 per cent but won eight seats. Are some votes more powerful than others?
Proportional representation, where the number of seats a party wins is directly proportional to the number of votes it received (so 10 per cent of the vote equals 10 per cent of the seats), would eliminate marginal electorates and safe seats. It would ensure the percentage of politicians that held a particular view corresponded more closely to the percentage of the people in the community who held that same view.
Proportional representation also comes with added benefits. Countries with proportional representation have more diverse and representative politicians. For example, Sweden, Iceland, South Africa and Finland have forms of proportional representation and are consistently ranked in the top ten countries for the number of women in parliament. Proportional representation is also associated with the benefits of coalition governments. When two or three parties are needed to pass a law or form government, the system forces parties to put aside their differences and work together.
It might also mean that badly behaving politicians could no longer hide behind a safe seat, and those with a ‘born to rule’ mentality may learn to accept the plurality of views in the community. These reforms will not be easy, given that they challenge the power of those now in charge, but they’re necessary, if we want to bring young people back into our democracy. The alternatives—rule by force, or the way we’re headed, rule by money—are simply too terrible to consider.
Image credit: John Englart